Though we travel frequently, we do not often travel internationally, so my children just got their first passports last summer. Passports for kids expire every 5 years, so there was no reason to start the clock until we had an international trip on the horizon.
I started at the U.S. State Department's official website, travel.state.gov, and read through the relevant pages carefully. I learned a few more things along the way. Here are my tips for sailing through the U.S. passport process with children.
Check the requirements for your destination
U.S. citizens under the age of 16 do not currently need passports to visit Canada by car or boat. A birth certificate or other proof of U.S. citizenship will work. We tried this on our visit to Victoria, British Columbia and had no trouble using good copies of our children's birth certificates at the ferry terminals. All members of the family will need their own passport if you fly into Canada.
A passport may not be required if you are on a Caribbean cruise that leaves from and returns to the U.S. However, it is a good thing to have. If you are somehow left at a port by the cruise ship, you may have a difficult time getting a flight out of the country without a passport in hand for each family member. A passport card is less expensive than a passport book and is valid for U.S. citizens entering the U.S. from Canada, Mexico, the Caribbean or Bermuda by land or sea.
If you will be traveling internationally without your child's other parent, additional documentation will likely be required to show that parent's consent. Visit the Country Information page at travel.state.gov to learn about all the special requirements for children in the countries you plan to visit.
Start the process early
It takes at least 4-6 weeks to process a passport application after it is sent in. Give yourself at least a week on top of that to fill out forms, make appointments, collect documents and take photos. Be prepared for unplanned processing delays. A couple of weeks after submitting our application, we received letters for both children stating that documentation was missing. They needed either my or my husband's ID – I couldn't tell which, – so I sent new copies of both our passports and we received the kids' new passports in the mail soon afterward.
If you need a passport in less than 6 weeks, it is possible to expedite the process for an additional fee. There are several ways to do this, and they are listed on the U.S. State Department's website:
Download the forms
All of the forms and documents you will need to get passports for kids are listed here:
It's quite a list, but you can do it. Most of the information and documents are things you should have handy anyway. Original birth certificates are required, and will be returned around the same time you receive the passport.
You no longer need to pay for professional passport photos! travel.state.gov has detailed instructions for taking your own photo. I followed them carefully for my children, and it worked. Use a white wall or a piece of poster board for the background. I used my digital camera and printed our photos on photo paper with our printer. I used the photo tool at travel.state.gov to get the size right.
My rookie mistake was telling my children to smile. The website says that a natural smile is acceptable, and my photos did make the cut. However, the clerk at the post office told me that a neutral face is preferred, and she had seen photos rejected for smiles. It's still a good idea to have the photos professionally taken, or you may be able to have them taken at the post office or other passport agency for an additional charge.
Make an appointment
Assume that you will not get a passport appointment in the same week you make the appointment, unless you are expediting. When I made appointments for my children at our local post office, all the Saturday appointments were gone for weeks ahead, and weekday appointments were filling fast. I took my children out of school for an hour for their passport appointments because that's what was available. Each appointment takes about 15 minutes, assuming that they start on time. Ours didn't.
Both parents should go with the children to the appointments. If this is not possible, the parent who will not be there must complete the form DS-3053 and sign it before a notary. Our appointments were scheduled at a bad time for my husband, so he completed the forms and had them notarized at our bank.
IMPORTANT! Credit and debit cards may not be accepted for payment if you use a post office or other Authorized Passport Application Acceptance Facility. This delayed us and the person before us at our post office. Bring your check book, a cashier's check, or cash for the exact amount.
Want more information?
Here is a link to a helpful graphic from the U.S. State Department to help you decide what type of passport you need, what it will cost, and how long it will take to process.
The FAQ section of travel.state.gov has a lot more good information that may help with your specific situation, including passports for infants.